Saving Madidi, 2000


On this blog, we have discussed earlier about conservation of nature and economic reasons to develop them. Last week, I stood in the middle of one such frontline, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon.

In 1995, the country agreed to establish 1.8 million hectares of cloud and tropical forest, lowlands and savannah as Madidi National Park. It was part of a Debt-for-Nature Swap (where Third World countries’ debt were reduced in exchange for the promise not to develop rain forests and other natural areas). The Madidi is one of the most remote places in the world, straddling the foothills of the Andes and the Amazon basin, drained by vast rivers and pristine lakes. Reportedly, it holds 1,000 bird species and almost half of the new world’s mammals.

Red-and-green macaws in flight over Madidi National Park, Bolivia.

Controversy began almost immediately after the Madidi was declared a national park. Various Bolivian governments tried to build a dam at the park’s southeastern border: a dam which would flood over 2500 sq-km (14% of the park), including the Chalalan Lake. As far back as the 1950s, engineers had proposed a dam here, in the El Bala Narrows just north of Rurrenabaque, where the Rio Beni burst through the last ridge of the Andes in a narrow defile. Bolivia did not need all the hydroelectric power the dam would generate, but it hoped to export to Brazil.

The project was halted in 1998 due to local opposition and international studies, but remained in limbo. Enter Joel Sartore, a Nebraskan photographer for National Geographic. The park was so remote that he was in the flight for 36 hours, drove for a few more hours, and spent a day on a canoe, fighting sweat bees. He spent days on the scaffolding to photograph macaws in flight and later had to undergo treatment for leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite that he got from a sandfly bite. His photos of the park which were printed on March 2000 issue of the magazine with the heading “Madidi, Will Bolivia Drown its Spectacular New National Park?”

A widespread public outcry followed. Sartore recalls, “[The issue] ends up on the president of Bolivia’s desk. What does he say? ‘Of course we won’t drown our spectacular new park’.” Twenty years later, today, the park is once more in jeopardy as the Bolivian government reconsiders the El Bala dam project.

(More photos here)


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